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The Russo-Polish Jews.


A new Imperial Ukase, dated 13th November, 1844, appears to contemplate a species of incorporation of the Jews in the Russian empire, and the provision of schools subservient to that end. The ukase contains only the general principles, in accordance with which the system of organization is to be modelled. Former ordinances have required the attendance of the Jewish youth at the general schools; by this decree, schools are to be provided at the government expense, for their use especially, and to consist of two classes:—elementary schools, for all practical purposes similar to those already existing;—and seminaries for the training of Rabbis and teachers. The Emperor, in signing the ukase, protests that it is bonâ fide for the advantage of the Jews themselves; and he claims the hearty co-operation of his Jewish subjects in carrying it into effect.

The frost leaves us without our Jewish sources of information; and we have nothing before us but a translation of the ukase itself.* As we have said elsewhere, if the design be truly what it professes to be (and why should it not be?—if the Emperor be any thing but a madman, he must know that it is his interest to be sincere in this matter:) and if it be merely some exaggerated, though not unnatural mistrust, which prevents the co-operation for which he appeals,—then how glorious would be the privilege of some body of Jewish statesmen who might interpose, and, obtaining the proper guarantees, enable the Emperor to become indeed a father to his Jewish subjects; and those subjects to become the worthiest and most valuable children of his care!

* It appears to differ very little from a scheme proposed some two years since, and may prove to be that same scheme revived.

It will without doubt be remembered by our readers, that an imperial ukase, dated 26th June, forbids the erection of any synagogue within a prescribed distance from an orthodox Greek Church. It appears that the Emperor, in his own hand, has added a clause preventing the application of this ukase to any synagogue already existing; except in the case of wooden erections, requiring to be rebuilt.

Another imperial ukase provides, that in every asylum for children in which Jewish children are inmates, a religious teacher of that faith, as well as a Jewish cook, shall be attached thereto.

A correspondent of the A. Z. d. J., writing from St. Petersburg, gives a highly interesting account of the Jewish soldiers and their religious constancy. There are at least 20,000 men of this faith in the Russian army and navy; and their characteristic devotion to the requirements of their ritual, under the most difficult and trying circumstances, must be a matter of the utmost surprise to those who do not know what his religion is to the Jew. The narrator, who is a Jew himself, writes as if inspired by the spectacle here presented.

“Nothing can better testify to the strength and constancy of attachment to Judaism which prevail in Russia, than the conduct of these soldiers. It is indeed something to move a Jewish soul, and rejoice a Jewish heart, to witness how religion pierces through every obstacle, and how exalted is that strength of faith in God, which finds the joy of life in self-devotion, and the rich reward of a thousand privations, in the hallowing consciousness of duty fulfilled. It is an ennobling spectacle, thus almost unconsciously presented by these poor men; for, in despite of their manifold hindrances, we see the Sabbath—with its peaceful joys and family ties, conjugal fidelity, paternal and filial love; nay, even the passion for biblical study, and the absorbing devotion to ceremonial observance, all upheld with a pride which is priestly and patriarchal. It is the deep reverence for the past of Judaism; with its powerful, all-pervading institutions, which thus possesses the heart of the observer; and the spirit unconsciously asks the question:—Will reform, with its ceaseless clang, be equally powerful for the preservation of the religion of our fathers, equally sanctifying, equally cheering to the soul, as the past, with its peaceful, restraining tendencies?”

Religious congregations have thus been formed in the arsenal of Kronstadt, and in the various garrison towns. The narrator proceeds to give an account of those existing in St. Petersburg.

One place of worship is used by the Jews in the various regiments of the guards. Here, from 400 to 500 men assemble on sacred days. Another is frequented by the armourers, and accommodates about 200; and a third is on the opposite side of the Neva (at Wessili-Ostrow), where the attendance is smaller.

“I attended, during the last holidays, the prayer meeting of the armourers. A spacious quadrangular room had been devoted to the purpose since 1837; the income since then, partly from the sale of מצות, partly from freewill offerings, has enabled them to give it the appearance of a proper synagogue. First, they provided an ark; then a בימה (reading desk), and at last they were able to partition off a place for the females, (they are nearly all married). Of course they have their ספר תורה (sacred roll), and they have made a sufficient number of suspended candlesticks, as also set up the usual tableaux with various prayers; all being ornamented either with the Imperial crown or the double eagle. On week days, if their time permit it, they pray with מנין (ten male adults); otherwise each performs his devotions alone. The afternoon service is often protracted, so as to extend to the time of evening service; as was the case one evening when I joined them in consequence of having יאהר צייט (the anniversary of a parent’s death,) and found a sturdy smith pouring over the cabalistic שער היראה. On the Sabbath the usual services are performed, with evidently heartfelt devotion, by an assemblage dressed in the various uniforms of the soldiery, the regimental bands, and the hospital service. After the custom of their homes, according to which no Jew goes to pray without binding on a girdle, they tie their handkerchiefs over their uniforms. In order that every one may be called to the reading of the Law as frequently as possible, three of the sacred rolls are taken out of the ark; one being read on the בימה, and the others on side tables: of course different soldiers are called to each. As it often happens that the ukase obliges some to work as armourers in the same house on the Sabbath day, they hasten, at the time when קדושה is said, to run in to their brethren, even with their black hands and aprons; and it is a moving spectacle to witness them thus, in their heartfelt and all-absorbing devotion, joining in the threefold ascription of holiness to our Almighty Father.”— Voice of Jacob, No. 93.

In addition to the above we find the subjoined in No. 97.

“The narrator of the particulars concerning the Jews in the Russian army and navy, given in our No. 93, has now concluded his sketch. It includes some interesting details of the consecration of a ספר תורה (Pentateuch roll), on the 1st day of Selichoth. One of the soldiers (a shoemaker) had written it at Sklow; and another, having learned turning from a German, had made עץ חיים (the wooden rollers to which the writing is affixed) for it, ornamenting them with Hebrew letters, neatly cut in ivory and mother-of-pearl. As the Jews in garrison at Petersburgh had not elected a Rabbi; they had to send for one to Kron­stadt. He is also a soldier, but is allowed, in respect to his office, to officiate in the Jewish caftan and fur cap. He brought with him the Chazan and his assistants. The Synagogue was brilliantly illuminated, and the sepher laid out, in order that every one so minded might have the privilege of writing a letter in the few last lines, left unwritten, as usual, for that purpose. Prayers and hymns followed, and then the congregation adjourned to a festival, at the cost of the shoemaker and those who had written in the sepher. The preparatory days thus appropriately commenced, the usual service was performed at 2 o’clock every morning, until the New Year festival, when the service was performed by two competent Chazanim, elected by the soldiery from among themselves. The Kantonists (children, too young for active military service), were brought during those sacred days from their schools, and allowed to remain with the soldiers at their own cost. In the ע״י תשובה (penance days), the hedging in of the burial-ground was finished, (thanks to the aid of two Jewish dentists in Petersburgh;) and on the Day of Atonement, offerings were made to all their humble charities. For the feast of Succoth, they had a pretty little tabernacle at the canteen. The narrator was present at a wedding, solemnized most affectingly. The difficulties of courtship and marriage to these poor people are indeed formidable; and he tells a tale of a young pair, who had the boldness to petition the Emperor himself, and obtained his permission. In describing the ceremony, the narrator hazards an opinion on the ancient custom of leading the bride three [sic! seven--Webmaster.] times round the bridegroom;—he attributes it to a desire to disregard the eastern (Gentile) system of not allowing the husband to see his wife till after the marriage. All these particulars are deeply interesting, and they exhibit the all-sufficiency of that trust in God, with which these Jews can obey His ordinances, and even be cheerful despite their hardships. But after all, the narrator is evidently giving the bright side of the picture only. That the conscription seizes hold of all ages, and all ranks, is evidently a great fact, and one painful to contemplate notwithstanding these consolatory particulars.”

[Hasidic version of these events.]